As a rare book dealer, sometimes people assume that I only like older books. It’s true that a lot of my favorites come from the 19th century or earlier, but I’m not a book snob. (At least not in that sense.) I’m in fact boringly democratic in my tastes: I like great books of any age, genre, or topic. And I will now prove that to you in the geekiest way possible.
For your pleasure, here is a list of 15 bizarre facts about the Lewis and Clark Expedition that I learned from Undaunted Courage (1996), the amazing non-fiction book about the first overland journey to the Pacific and back by Stephen Ambrose.
1. Lewis and Clark met in 1795, when Lewis was transferred to Clark’s company of elite rifle shooters. The reason for the transfer? Lewis’s punishment for getting into a drunken brawl.
2. Before Lewis and Clark, there were other plans to explore the West. In 1793, Jefferson sent the experienced French botanist Andre Michaux on an exploring expedition. So why do we celebrate Lewis and Clark, but not Michaux? It turns out Michaux was actually a secret agent working for the French Republic. He was using the expedition as an excuse to recruit an army of American militia and attack Spanish settlements beyond the Mississippi River.
3. Before Lewis departed, Jefferson gave him a letter of credit allowing him to draw on any section of the U.S. government for any reason. Unlimited letter of credit from the president? Why hasn’t that been done ever again?
4. Worries about security among the Native tribes led the Corps to bring the largest arsenal of gunpowder weapons ever seen in Missouri, let alone west of the Mississippi. They were more of a mini-army than a group of gentlemen naturalists.
5. The French Canadian Charbonneau won and married Sacagawea in a bet with Native warriors who had captured her.
6. Speaking of Sacagawea, the members of the expedition had a hard time pronouncing her name. They just called her “Janey.”
7. By the time they crossed the Bitterroot Mountains, extreme circumstances forced them to eat dog meat. Lewis learned to like it. Clark did not.
8. The Spanish were (rightfully) concerned about what this expedition could mean for their territories just to the south of the Louisiana Purchase. So they sent out four different parties to find Lewis and arrest him.
9. During a hunting trip with Cruzatte (a member of the Corps), Lewis was shot in the butt. Luckily the bullet passed through, but Lewis feared further attack. Cruzatte insisted he didn’t fire the shot, so it could only mean they were being ambushed by Native Americans. They found no one. Hmm.
10. Upon returning to St. Louis with news of their historic expedition, the Corps sold items from the trip. For their monetary value. Only.
11. One of the expedition members, Sergeant Gass, sold his journal to a publisher before the official publication by Lewis was ready. Lewis wrote a public letter arguing why readers should support only the official account (created by him). In return, Gass’s publisher publicly ridiculed Lewis, dismissing him as less than Mackenzie.
12. After Jefferson received all the precious artifacts from the expedition in Washington, he attempted to transport them to Richmond. The ship was stranded and almost the entire cargo was lost. To the Pacific and back, but 100 miles of Virginia was too much.
13. In the last year of his life, Lewis was taking opium regularly to help with malarial attacks (a side-effect of the expedition). The last year of his life was only 1809: that autumn he committed suicide. He shot himself, twice, and when that didn’t work, he cut himself with a razor.
14. As a show of hospitality, Native tribes would often send women to the Corps at night. Thus the vast majority of the men in the Lewis and Clark Expedition were suffering from venereal diseases.
15. Speaking of diseases, one of the favorite methods for treating illness was the administration of tablets laced with mercury. Mercury—which is fatally poisonous at worst, but passes right through the body at best. Today scholars can even trace certain routes the expedition took because of mercury, er, deposits.
Have I convinced you to read Undaunted Courage? Great! Go read it!
On the other hand, if these tidbits have not convinced you how great Stephen Ambrose’s book is, then I challenge you to read the book and prove me wrong. Good? Go read it! You’re welcome.